From left: Alissa Bushnell, Brent Bushnell, Tyler Bushnell and Nolan Bushnell

From left: Alissa Bushnell, Brent Bushnell, Tyler Bushnell and Nolan Bushnell

Britton Peele/Staff Writer

Nolan Bushnell has a pretty good track record when it comes to creating fun. He is considered one of the fathers of the video game industry, he co-founded Atari (alongside being instrumental to the popularity of Pong), he created Irving-based Chuck E. Cheese's and has had at least a hand in a wide variety of other entertainment-based ventures.

Chuck E. Cheese's founder Nolan Bushnell with the Chuck E. Cheese character.

Chuck E. Cheese's founder Nolan Bushnell with the Chuck E. Cheese character.

Undated file photo

But while Nolan's name is well-known in American business, and anybody who cares deeply about video game history, fewer know that he's not the only Bushnell out there focused on finding new, innovative ways for people to have fun.

At South By Southwest Interactive on Sunday afternoon, Nolan was joined on a ballroom stage by three of his children: Alissa, Brent and Tyler. Each of them works in some way with modern technology, and often they work together to come up with clever ideas.

The panel, called "Smartertainment: Bushnells on the Future of Fun," began with the past. The family showed off old photographs of family dinners and even older photographs of a young Nolan Bushnell tinkering with a ham radio when he was young. They told the story of how a young Steve Jobs showed up in the lobby of Atari and said "I'm not leaving until you hire me," (he played a role in the creation of Breakout). 

He turned down the opportunity to own a third of Apple for $50,000. It would have been a conflict of interest.

"But still, I regret that," Nolan Bushnell said as the crowd laughed.

While reminiscing, the Bushnells noted that for as much as some technology has changed, many things have stayed the same. Mini-golf and laser tag are mostly the same as they've always been, for example, while other entertainment trends have looked nostalgically backwards. Arcade bars are a popular trend and tabletop board games are seeing a huge resurgence.

This has influenced some of the Bushnell's latest projects. Tyler Bushnell recently had a successful Kickstarter for Polycade, a re-imagining of the classic arcade design that he hopes solves a lot of old arcade problems for modern venues. Brent Bushnell runs Two Bit Circus, which is "blurring the line between physical and digital playgrounds."

But one of the most important guiding lights for them all is that entertainment should be "easy to learn." As an example, they showed the player instructions for Pong, which consisted of merely three lines, one of which was "Insert quarter." They compared that to the manual for Mortal Kombat, which requires page after page of instructions for how to play. 

"When [gaming] got super violent, it lost the casual gamer," Alissa  Bushnell says.

So what's the future of fun? Well, a lot of things. Here are a few:

1. Virtual and augmented reality

VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) came up a lot in various contexts, and in fact they have come up repeatedly throughout SXSW Interactive.

AR, which Nolan Bushnell said could make board gaming even bigger than it is now, takes the world around you and lays digital elements on top of it. For example, imagine being able to put on a pair of transparent glasses through which you can see virtual game pieces on the flat, clean table in front of you. Companies like Microsoft are working hard on that exact thing.

VR is more about virtually taking you out of your current place and putting you somewhere else. While sitting at your desk in Texas you might put on a VR headset and feel as if you're instead driving a car.

"Social VR" also came up, with Brent Bushnell calling out a game that's already available: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. In it, one player is wearing a VR headset and looking at a bomb that the rest of the players (who aren't wearing headsets) can't see. The VR player has to describe the bomb to his teammates so they can frantically look through a book in an attempt to figure out how to diffuse it. It's a clever use of technology for social interaction.

2. Physical fun

Nolan Bushnell wants to create a "bouncy house pinball machine," in which you yourself are the ball bouncing around on bumpers and other obstacles. Not only does this have the potential to be a lot of fun, it could also be a good workout.

Letting people have fun while working out doesn't stop there. "We're doing a health club in Las Vegas," Nolan Bushnell says, "in which all the exercise machines have a slot machine associated with it. So you can only push the button when you're in motion. But more than that, if you come back the next day you get a free pull," just like in many of the most popular free-to-play games that millions of people play on their phones and computers already. You get rewarded for coming back regularly.

3. 'The Internet of Things'

When asked what technology he thought could most change the entertainment world, Nolan Bushnell was quick to reply "The Internet of Things." Put in extremely simple terms, it's the idea that most objects we use in our day-to-day lives -- from cars to homes to implanted chips that monitor your health -- are all automated and connected to a network.

"It's an enabling technology because it just drops the cost to link everything together. Because for geo-spacial games -- we're talking about big stuff -- [technology] has to be distributed. And we all know that wires are our enemy. They break and you have to run them." By making everything work together wirelessly, you could open up the door to new gameplay experiences that take place outside in the real world without the need to be tethered to a computer or console.

For more insights into SXSW, go to guidelive.com/SXSW.

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